Election 2004

Short Takes on the Debate

Some of AlterNet's writers and editors offer quick reactions and instant analyses on Wednesday night's final Presidential debate.
Editor’s Note: The third — and last — presidential debate between incumbent President George W. Bush and his Democratic challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry, took place Wednesday evening in Tempe, Arizona. Moderated by Bob Schieffer of CBS News, it focused mostly on domestic issues.


Nina Burleigh: If there was any doubt left in anyone's mind that President Bush has only three weeks left to enjoy the perks of office, tonight ended it. His blustering, angry demeanor made Sen. John Kerry look ever more Presidential in contrast. Bush's domestic policies, as he presented them, can be boiled down to two mantras: "No Child Left Behind," and that first-debate shibboleth, guaranteed to pique the xenophobes in his base, Kerry's "global test." Bush answered questions about immigration, Social Security, affirmative action, even abortion, with the "No Child Left Behind" slogan – apparently the only domestic program his advisors were able to drill into his memory cells. Mentioning Kerry's "global test" was his Hail Mary pass, and it didn't connect. Viewers tuning out the numbers and wonkery from Kerry or watching with the sound down couldn't have missed the look of panic in Bush's face toward the end of the hour and a half. W failed this, his third test, as he failed the first two. The dire nature of his situation suddenly dawning on him, he looked like a man who'd seen his own ghost. If and when Bush cares to review tonight's performance, that's exactly what he'll see.


Lakshmi Chaudhry: In a night more memorable for the sheer volume of data than one-liners, the last presidential debate marked less a clear win for John Kerry than a decisive failure for George Bush. Though more articulate and less defensive than in the past two debates, Bush simply failed to sound convincing in his attempts to either tag John Kerry as leftwing loon or to defend his own abysmal record. To be fair, the president did have the uphill task of convincing Americans that the very real problems in their everyday lives – be it jobs or healthcare – simply don't exist. So it's no wonder that he spoke instead to his evangelical base, sending them a series of value-laden messages designed to get them to the voting booth come Election Day.

On the other hand, it is women voters who will the most pleased with Kerry, who addressed their concerns directly and without ambiguity. The Democratic presidential candidate finally acknowledged that it is women who will win him the White House – as they have done for every Democratic president in recent history.

Don Hazen and Jen Nix: About 200 people attended an event in the Black Oak bookstore in Berkeley, California where George Lakoff, author of Don't Think Of An Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, spoke after everyone watched the presidential debate. He said he observed Bush being on the defensive for most of the debate and this time, Bush steered clear of the flip-flop line, because Kerry had done a credible job of showing himself to be steady and resolute. Bush spent his time raising his eyebrows and speaking in high tones.

The question about flu vaccines caught Bush way off guard, Lakoff said. He remarked on the irony of Bush first blaming the shortage of vaccines on Great Britain, America's steadfast ally in the Iraq war, and then saying the vaccines could be bought from Canada – a country whose drug imports Bush has tried to block becuase of his concerns about safety.

An audience member asked Lakoff if Kerry could have won the debate without trying to stake the middle ground. Lakoff said that Kerry could have, but pointed out that Kerry's chief political advisor, Bob Shrum wanted Kerry to stake the center and not have him challenge Bush's radical conservatism.

When someone pointed out that there was no question about the environment, Lakoff noted that while many people in Berkeley may recognize the import of environmental issues, many Americans don't strongly relate to the issue because it is framed so poorly – it's thought of as something removed from their daily lives. Lakoff said there needed to be a National Healthy Bodies Institute that looked at the environment as a central issue that was part of all of our lives. He believes the environment needs to be framed as a topic that starts as something inside of us – our own health is the environment. A clean environment means better, higher paying jobs – something that all Americans can relate to.

Laura Flanders: Enough already. In the final debate, the conversation became tightly focused on two men, their records, their stump style, their familes, and too little focused on us — 21st Century America.  

Partly because the event took place in Arizona, a state currently eating itself up over immigration, this debate did finally turn to that issue, but viewers who were looking for confident talk about fighting discrimination and defending equal rights, found both candidates evasive, even dull. Both jumped to talk about God and their faith; they competed to assure Americans that their nation will forever be strong, strong, strong and ready to kill.

But when the topic turned to immigrants' rights, gay and lesbian equality, affirmative action or a woman's right to choose, their fervor was faint by comparison. On the basic issues of human equality, the two men hold different positions (on the red herring marriage amendment for example, and legal abortion) but Kerry lacks force. On Roe v. Wade, George Bush supports the Republican Party platform which commits to a Constitutional abortion ban. He supported the same position as Governor of Texas. It's Kerry's fault if once again, as in 2000, the "W Stands for Women" obfuscation endures.

On his own minimum wage plan, Kerry was strong enough, but on the Bush campaign to devolve minimum wage rates to the states and to turn the Labor Dept. into a watchdog on trade unions, the Democrat said not one word.

On education, would it have been impossible for Kerry to derail the President's endless repetitions? Sure, failing kids were being shuffled through schools before the passage of No Child Left Behind. But now they're being encouraged to drop out so that schools don't suffer from low scores. Bush said his education plan is a jobs plan — it is, but mostly for those, like his brother Neil, who work in the testing industry.

Kerry didn't lose tonight's debate, but he didn't win it either. George Bush accomplished the minimum, but he needed to do more. It's probably just as well the debate season's over. Now it's not about them, it's about us. In the battering that awaits, Kerry needs to defend his own record, but more important, he needs to mobilize his base, the young voters, women, and people of color who put him ahead. Sadly, he seems to lack real juice on their issues.

Steve Cobble: After four years in office, the President of the most powerful nation in the history of the world could not offer a health care plan for the 45 million Americans without health insurance; blew a direct question asking what he would say to someone who lost their job; ducked the delicate issue of Roe v. Wade (but with code words for the far right); didn’t know whether homosexuality was a choice or not; and refused to take any responsibility for the mess in Iraq, the current lack of flu vaccine, record job losses, declining wages, assault weapons, huge deficits, or the divisiveness in our politics.

And this was his “best” debate. Which Kerry won (again).

Silja J.A. Talvi The battle was hardly as fierce as the last one, but it was memorable. The President was, apparently, either successfully medicated or adequately coached so as not to lose his cool this time around. Still and all, there were some precious utterances this time around. My personal favorite was President Bush’s statement about how he wanted to see a realization of a “culture of life.”

“The ideal world is a world in which every child is protected,” he said. The statement referenced abortions and his administration’s ongoing right-to-life crusade. But what I wanted to know was this: Does the culture of life include the lives of the many hundreds of kids being killed in Iraq? And why didn’t Kerry seize upon the opportunity to point out the very serious “collateral consequences” of our war where the lives of children are concerned? What a perfect opportunity, missed, to point out a very serious hypocrisy.

Beyond the obvious, there were a number of subtle, shocking proclamations. Among them, Bush’s careful sidestep of the question about his opinion Roe v. Wade, the historic 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision: “I will not have a litmus test.” Yes, but, did you answer the damn question? Obviously not.

The other huge sidestep, to my mind, was the careful avoidance of Sen. Kerry’s accurate assignation of blame where Bush’s track record with the African American community has been concerned. Specifically, Bush has opted to never once meet with the NAACP during his four-year tenure. And in classic fashion, he simply ignored it. Tell me this, dear readers, where and what are the Armies of Compassion to which Bush refers? Inquiring minds really do want to know.

Alastair Paulin:

First, God bless TiVo. There is no more satisfying way to watch a presidential debate than to hit "pause" after some Bush howler, or Kerry groaner, and swear loudly at the frozen face (which in Bush's cases, I noticed, was usually stuck in a shit-eating grin.) Or was that just the beta-blockers he was on? Whatever the cause, Bush did manage to control some of his tics and scowls tonight and channel his folksy charm. When he was dealing with a softball, such as the question about the role of faith in his presidency, he smacked it with authority and resisted the impulse to follow it with a gloating smirk.

On that question, despite having effectively invoked his faith earlier, Kerry showed that he knew he was at a disadvantage. His first response was to say,"I respect everything the President said and respect his faith" and then followed that with much hemming and hawing before getting into some wishy washy pantheistic blurb about the Koran, the Torah, and Native American beliefs. Worthy stuff, but not aimed at undecided Christians in Ohio. (Are there any undecided Christians in Ohio? How can there be any undecideds, anywhere, at this point?)

From a progressive standpoint, Kerry scored with strong answers on the minimum wage, affirmative action, and for bringing up pay equity for women. As usual in these debates, what was telling was what wasn't said, and Bush completely ducked those questions.

Lamest question of the night – and Bob Schieffer's tortured syntax showed that he knew it too: "Will you set a priority on trying to bring the country back together?" How much would you have loved either man to say "no"? This was yet another question where Kerry showed his tendency to talk like a senator rather than a human. It was a perfect opportunity to talk about values, faith, family life, togetherness, hell, even football – any number of warm fuzzy uniting ideas. Instead Kerry delivered complaints about congressional procedure and a lecture about campaign finance reform. Pertinent points yes, but he missed a chance to connect with people. Even the final lines of the closing statements showed this difference between the two men. Kerry, basso profundo, orated the ponderous words "God bless the United States of America." Bush said, "God bless you." Kerry tries so hard to appear presidential that he often misses the chance to appear likeable.
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